Washington Watch

Nov. 1, 2007

Is USAF “Going Out of Business”

The Air Force’s attempts to fund replacement of its aged fleet by cutting personnel is failing, and if Congress and the White House don’t provide an infusion of cash soon, the service will no longer be able to win wars, Air Force Secretary Michael W. Wynne warned.

Wynne, speaking in mid-September at a Washington, D.C., think tank, declared that the service’s stay-within-its-topline bootstrap approach isn’t arresting the aging aircraft problem, and the inventory age is still rising, from 23.9 years today to what is expected to be 26.5 years by 2012.

The Air Force’s older fighters aren’t up to defeating a modern air defense system or modern foreign fighters, Wynne said, and in a fight with Venezuela or Iran, such aircraft would probably be shot down.

“No fourth generation fighter would be allowed into war over Tehran or over Caracas, once they buy what the Russians are selling them,” Wynne said. He noted that as far back as Operation Allied Force in 1999, only stealthy B-2s and F-117s were actually able to overfly the murderous air defenses around Belgrade, and foreign air defense systems have improved dramatically since then.

“If you as Americans want to be coerced, we’re starting down that road,” Wynne added.

A massive aircraft modernization effort was slated to begin in the mid-1990s, but was postponed due to the end of the Cold War, and then again by the wars in Southwest Asia. The Air Force can’t wait any longer, Wynne said.

If the nation’s adversaries believe the US is losing its ability to dominate the air, “they will kick our butts,” he said flatly. “America’s not funding us to be a large Air Force anymore.”

Moreover, if sufficient numbers of fifth generation F-35s and F-22s aren’t in service in two decades, the US will only be on a par with other countries that are aggressively pursuing their own fifth generation fighters, Wynne said.

“If we’re in a fair fight, you [the American public] are in trouble,” Wynne warned.

It was his idea, he said, to “voluntarily downsize and restructure our force, just like an industrialist would do, in order to gain the resources to recapitalize his asset base.” The plan called for eliminating the equivalent of 40,000 full-time uniformed positions.

However, “it isn’t working,” Wynne admitted.

“What does that mean to an industrialist? It means you are going out of business. It is simply a matter of time.” All that has been accomplished, he said, is to slow down the pace at which Air Force aircraft are racing toward their retirement dates.

“This can’t go on,” Wynne asserted. “At some time in the future, they will simply rust out, age out, fall out of the sky. We need, somehow, to recapitalize this force.”

The KC-X tanker program is the Air Force’s top priority, Wynne said, because his “greatest fear” is that the Eisenhower-vintage aircraft will simply start to crash. If that happens, they would either have to be kept flying—forcing USAF to “essentially accept that risk”—or be grounded, leaving the nation with only a few dozen 1980s-vintage KC-10s to refuel the nation’s air armadas.

He chided critics of the F-35, saying the US can’t just—yet again—defer buying the state of the art and wait for the next generation of aircraft to come along. Wynne said the last time the Air Force did that, it wound up buying only 21 B-2s, which are touted by fighter critics as the best type of weapon to counter far-away China.

“How big do you think China is?” he asked.

Wynne also stumped for modernization of the US satellite constellation, pointing out that all of it will need replacement in less than a dozen years. China’s test of an anti-satellite system this year, he said, was “a little message: ‘Don’t think you’re safe up there.’ Space is not a sanctuary anymore.”

Wynne said the Air Force has now been at war for 17 years, that its people and equipment are wearing out, and that action must be taken at once to make the service well again.

He also warned that the nation can’t afford to wait for the wars in Southwest Asia to end before beginning the process of rebuilding the Air Force. It has to begin now because Wynne expects the current conflicts to continue until 2010, “and perhaps beyond.”

UAV Executive Agency—Denied

The Air Force in September lost its second bid to become the Pentagon’s executive agent for unmanned aerial systems. Deputy Secretary of Defense Gordon England instead ordered six other actions aimed at providing “common, joint, and operationally effective UAS programs.”

England’s order concludes a six-month campaign by USAF to claim leadership over unmanned vehicles that fly above 3,500 feet. (See “The Struggle Over UAVs,” p. 32.)

The Air Force felt that it should be in charge of the unmanned craft in order to address a chronic shortage of reconnaissance vehicles, get better deals on buying them, and coordinate their operations to avoid midair collisions. The service also felt that the aircraft fit in with its fixed-wing intelligence-surveillance-reconnaissance mission and that it could integrate the ISR function of unmanned craft with satellites better than any other entity could.

Responding to England’s order, the Air Force said through a spokesman that his ruling “does not represent an end state, in and of itself; rather, it is a beginning.” The service went on to say that “while this is not the decision the Air Force sought,” the UAS concerns raised by Chief of Staff Gen. T. Michael Moseley “are being addressed.”

England ordered that “in lieu of” executive agency for USAF, a task force under the Pentagon’s acquisition chief be set up to “coordinate critical UAS issues and to develop a way ahead” on the systems. This task force will consider aspects of UAS operations and then assign certain agencies various UAS-related tasks.

England assigned the Joint Requirements Oversight Council—which had previously agreed to give the Air Force executive agency—to take over the job of coordinating UAS training and operational employment.

Moreover, England directed that the Air Force and Army merge their Predator and Sky Warrior programs within a year. The craft, both of which are built by General Atomics, are to have a common data link, as well as common training and sustainment systems. The Air Force plans to evaluate two Sky Warriors, which differ somewhat from the Predator, and has said it would switch to buying the Army’s version if it proves suitable to USAF needs.

The Pentagon’s acquisition chief is to work with the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff to develop ways to integrate unmanned aircraft into the Joint Capabilities Integration Development System. The acquisition chief is also to suggest ways to increase the number of companies that compete to develop and build unmanned aircraft.

Nuclear Safety Stand-down

The Air Force observed a safety stand-down on Sept. 14 to review its procedures regarding the handling of nuclear weapons, following the service’s acknowledgment that it inadvertently flew nuclear-armed cruise missiles in August.

Air Force Secretary Michael W. Wynne traveled to Minot AFB, N.D., to personally express his concerns about the incident. A spokeswoman for Wynne said he made the trip to talk to the airmen involved, gain firsthand knowledge of the incident, and “to make sure this never happens again.”

What happened was this: A number of AGM-129 Advanced Cruise Missiles were to be flown from Minot to Barksdale AFB, La., for retirement. They would be transported by mounting them on the pylons of a B-52H bomber. However, before the missiles were flown, their nuclear warheads were to be removed. Somehow, that didn’t happen with about half the missiles, and the bomber flew with “live” nuclear weapons across six states to Barksdale. There, it sat on the tarmac for 10 hours before anyone realized it was loaded with nuclear warheads. The mistake was not detected at Minot for hours.

The Air Force emphasized that the flight was uneventful, the weapons were not armed, and that no one was endangered in the incident.

“At no time was there a threat to public safety,” an Air Force spokesman said. The B-52s involved were not scheduled to launch any weapons in exercises.

However, the service took the event very seriously, and moved quickly to relieve from duty several officers involved, including the munitions squadron commander, and to temporarily decertify the airmen involved from working with nuclear weapons until the incident has been investigated and explained.

Wynne appointed Maj. Gen. Douglas L. Raaberg, director of air and space operations at Air Combat Command, to lead the formal investigation.

After reviewing a preliminary Air Force report about the incident, Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates also asked Larry D. Welch, retired USAF Chief of Staff and former head of Strategic Air Command, to conduct a separate look into the matter. A Pentagon spokesman said Gates was not unhappy with USAF’s own investigation, but wants Welch to find out if the incident reflects “a larger problem with regard to the security and transfer of munitions.”

The Pentagon spokesman said the Secretary believes “an outside set of eyes may be additionally helpful to … get a better sense of what went wrong and how to avoid similar mistakes in the future.” Welch is president and chief executive officer of the Institute for Defense Analyses, but his inquiry will be performed under the auspices of the Defense Science Board.

The USAF spokesman noted that the mistake was discovered by airmen “during internal … checks.” He also maintained that it was an “isolated” incident. The transport of cruise missiles aboard bombers is routine and regularly scheduled, he said.

During the safety stand-down, personnel involved with handling nuclear systems throughout ACC reviewed “procedures, discipline, and attention to detail,” a Minot spokeswoman said. She said she could not divulge the number of people who had been disciplined for deviating “from our extremely strict standard of proficiency.” However, a Pentagon spokeswoman said USAF plans to release as many of Raaberg’s findings as classification will allow. The Air Force did not say if he was working under a time limit.

The episode drew immediate criticism from Capitol Hill, where House Armed Services Committee Chairman Ike Skelton (D-Mo.) pledged to get to the bottom of the episode and urged the Defense Department to “strengthen controls more generally” on the nuclear inventory. Sen. Carl Levin (D-Mich.) and Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), the chairman and ranking member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, fired off a letter to Defense Secretary Gates insisting on an investigation by the Pentagon’s inspector general.

Toward the Pacific “Quad”

The United States, Japan, and India, three of the largest Asian-Pacific region democracies, should work toward a more defined and collaborative alliance, but one that is loose enough to include other countries, both formally and informally, according to a recent think tank study.

The Center for Strategic and International Studies, in an August report, said there is “intense interest” among security and economic leaders from the three countries, as well as Australia, toward greater defense and economic cooperation in the Pacific. However, the leaders caution that the cooperation must be handled carefully, to avoid seeming to threaten China, or to give the impression that smaller countries in the region aren’t wanted in the “club.”

The report was based on a series of discussions sponsored by CSIS between June 2006 and July 2007. Panelists included security specialists, former military and diplomatic leaders, business leaders, and defense industry executives from all three countries.

The panelists found that the three countries “share common values” that represent a sound basis for military and economic cooperation. They can help each other out by promoting openness and democracy in the Pacific, toward ensuring “that the emerging Asian economic and political architecture remains open and progressive.” The group also suggested moving forward with a “quadrilateral consultative mechanism” that would include Australia.

The four countries worked well together in responding to the 2004 tsunami crisis, the group found, especially since the relief effort began with just the four nations but quickly expanded to include most of the countries in the region, under their leadership. That experience should be the template for future security cooperation, CSIS said.

All four countries have strong bilateral relationships that don’t exclude having such relationships with China, the group noted.

Specifically, CSIS suggested that the group develop a “quadrilateral forum” which was proposed at a sidebar discussion held at the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) meeting in May.

“While the forum should be flexible in membership, and should focus on function rather than form, these four democracies can take the lead in establishing an agenda that reinforces a common commitment to open regionalism and raising the standards of governance and transparency.” The group should “avoid dissuading potential partners by being too exclusive.”

The end goal would be to “create a magnet that attracts other like-minded states, rather than a wall that drives them toward careful neutrality.”

The panelists noted that the US-Japan alliance has “never been stronger,” and that the recent agreements between the US and India on that country’s nuclear power program have opened up a broad opportunity for closer defense cooperation.

India has since welcomed US companies to bid on large new military requirements.

India, Japan, Australia, and the US have also conducted a large joint naval exercise in the Indian Ocean this year.

President Bush and Australian Prime Minister John Howard signed an agreement in September that allows greater sharing of military secrets, hardware, and information between the two countries. The defense trade cooperation pact will “strengthen our already robust alliance,” according to a White House statement.